By Bipandeep Sharma
When most of the global scientific cooperation remains suspended over the Arctic, on 27 September 2023, Xuelong 2, China’s first domestically built scientific icebreaker ship returned to its home port Shanghai, after concluding 13th scientific research expedition to the Arctic.
The ice-breaker also carried an autonomous underwater vehicle (XH1000) developed by Harbin Engineering University. Equipped with domestically developed detection sonars, this polar observing autonomous underwater vehicle surveyed an area of about 7,000 square meters beneath the Arctic ice and conducted multiple under-ice environment detection operations near the Chukchi Sea.1
The 13th expedition was mainly focused on undertaking scientific investigations in the Gakkel Ridges and the central section of the Pacific Arctic region. During the journey of about 15,000 nautical miles, Chinese researchers undertook 49 comprehensive marine surveys, deployed five sets of submersible buoys, carried out 142 groups of meteorological soundings tests, established six short-term and one long-term ice stations and deployed 26 sets of quasi-disposable ice-based buoys.
Various types of data was gathered on meteorology, atmospheric composition, aerosols, sea debris, gravity, sea surface temperature, profiling of currents, ship stress and related parameters.2 Apart from this, seabed seismic surveying, magneto telluric surveying and geological sampling from the Arctic Ocean were also conducted.3 About 130 strains of bacteria from seawater and Arctic sediments and around 68 genetic samples of marine flora and fauna for undertaking further research at Chinese laboratories and scientific institutions.4
China claimed that such experimentation and observations are aimed at strengthening its scientific understanding of the Arctic region. It is however pertinent to flag the dual-use implications of the experiments that were conducted. One such experimentation involved the use of Synthetic Aperture Radars (SARs) to observe Arctic region. SARs can be mounted on satellites, high-altitude airships, manned aircraft or unmanned aerial vehicles. They use microwave signals that can penetrate through dust, darkness, clouds and rain to create high-resolution images.5 During the expedition, Chinese scientists used five different frequency bands of SAR to build an integrated testing platform, for conducting sea ice observation by microwave remote sensing.6
Chinese scholars claim that the success of the mission demonstrates the credibility and endurance of Xuelong 2 and its onboard polar research equipment, which is seen as a big boost for the country’s domestic manufacturing industries undertaking R&D in polar resilient technologies. Chinese scientists claim that the scientific experiments conducted during this expedition would enable further understanding of multiple processes occurring in the region and help expand the scale of the country’s Arctic research.7
Not only is the scale and size of China’s scientific research activities in the Arctic significantly increasing, as evident from China’s annual expedition to the region, China has also developed some of the most critical dual-use infrastructural capabilities. China’s scientific research in the Arctic remains highly integrated where research activity on one aspect comprehends the other. Research on sea ice is an important parameter for Chinese engineers involved in the design and manufacturing of ice-breakers and other scientific instruments and infrastructure required for Polar Regions.8
Second, deployment of some of the unmanned buoys (domestically developed) on floating Arctic ice floes, that would make observation and record data on various parameters throughout the winters with capabilities to relay this data remotely to various civil–military research institutions in mainland China, is noteworthy. Critical instruments like vector hydrophones, along with multiple sensors deployed on these buoys, apart from undertaking scientific readings beneath Arctic Sea ice, could also be used to detect the movement of submarines and ships in the region.9
Third, each Chinese polar scientific expedition is having multiple dual-use scientific equipment on board manufactured indigenously. Their successful performance on multiple parameters in extreme polar environments helps China undertake extensive R&D. Such technologies not only strengthen China’s domestic technological capabilities but also open up prospects for exports.
Fourth, biological samples collected during this expedition will strengthen and replenish China’s National GeneBank (CNGB) in Shenzhen that has been operational since September 2016. China has ambitions of making this facility as the world’s biggest biological information data centre, and further its capabilities in critical domains such as bio-informatics and gene editing.
Fifth, China claims to be undertaking scientific research in the Arctic to address the global environmental challenges emanating from the region. Its research however remains primarily concerned with the impact of climate change to China’s own national interests. Increasing incidents of flooding and extreme weather patterns pose serious threats to Chinese agriculture which would have future implications for its food and economic security.10 China therefore could not tend to ignore the ongoing transformation in the Arctic region and is seeking to understand the region’s scientific and environmental dimensions.
Sixth, China’s polar research is progressing as per its ‘great leap-style development’ approach. China’s intentions in the Polar Regions are aimed at initially surpassing the capabilities of developing states, followed by efforts to surpass the developed polar states.11
Seventh, as per Part XI of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the portions of the seabed that lies outside the jurisdiction of coastal states, have the status of the “common heritage of mankind” (Article 136) and such areas are not subject to the “claim and exercise of sovereignty or sovereign rights” (Article 137).12 Three Arctic States—Denmark on behalf of Greenland (2014), Canada (2019) and Russia (initially in 2001 and then subsequent revised submissions in 2015, 2021 and 2023)—have made sovereignty claims over the ‘Gakkel Ridge’ that lies in the central Arctic Ocean before the Commission on the Limits of Continental Shelves (CLCS) on which CLCS has not made any decision.
Chinese surveys in ‘Gakkel Ridge’ raise speculations regarding its future intentions in the region, which is extremely rich in polymetallic nodules, polymetallic sulphides and cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts in its deep seabeds. Research assessments suggest that China’s future approach in such areas could be on two fronts—seek to exploit these critical or rare earth minerals for its domestic needs and seek avenues to export these resources in raw or furnished forms globally.13
Eighth, amid gaps in global scientific cooperation and hung mechanisms of Arctic governance, China’s 13th Arctic expedition for the first time witnessed the cooperation and participation of scientists and researchers from Thailand. The expedition also received bilateral support and cooperation from Russian counterparts who joined Chinese researchers to study local gravity, magnetic force and other physical data during the expedition.14 This shows China’s efforts to emerge as a new player in Arctic affairs and work with like-minded partners in polar research.
Xuelong 2 again set sail (along with Xuelong 115 and a cargo ship Tianhui) for China’s 40th expedition to Antarctic on 1 November 2023. This is the biggest flotilla of research vessels currently enroute to the Antarctic with 460 personnel onboard along with a large amount of logistics and construction material for building China’s fifth research station on Antarctica.16 The scale of China’s ongoing activities and the dual-use nature of its scientific research indicates that it will continue to accrue critical capabilities to strengthen its scientific and strategic objectives in the Polar Regions.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.
About the author: Mr Bipandeep Sharma is a Research Analyst at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi
Source: This article was published by Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses
- 1.Wang Qingchen and Zhu Zhongben, “Harbin Project’s ‘Xinghai 1000’ polar AUV explores the North Pole”, Harbin Engineering University, 2 October 2023.
- 2.Yu Taoran, “China’s 13th Arctic Ocean Scientific Expedition Team Triumphantly Made Important Progress in Independent Equipment Research and Development and Other Aspects”, Shanghai Observer, 27 September 2023.
- 4.“Chinese Scientists have Completed the First Stage of the 13th Expedition to the Arctic Ocean”, TACC, 14 August 2023.
- 5.Ricardo Rendon Cepeda, “Applications of Synthetic Aperture Radar Satellites to Environmental Monitoring”, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), 9 November 2020.
- 6.“Chinese Scientists Complete Crucial Researches during Expedition to Arctic Ocean”, CGTN, 20 September 2023.
- 7.“Arctic Expedition Home After Finishing Mission”, China Daily, The State Council People Republic of China, 28 September 2023.
- 8.“The 13th Arctic Ocean Scientific Expedition丨Popular Science: From Theory to Site–The first Line of Sea Ice Research”, Xinhua News, 21 August 2023.
- 9.Heiner Kubny, “China Deploying Acoustic Buoys in Arctic Ocean Triggers Concerns”, Polar Journal, 28 August 2023.
- 10.“China’s Arctic Policy”, The State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, January 2018.
- 11.Anne-Marie Brady, China as a Polar Great Power, Cambridge University Press, 2017, p. 55.
- 12.Lars Kullerud and Oran R. Young, “Adding a Gakkel Ridge Regime to the Evolving Arctic Ocean Governance Complex”, Marine Policy, Vol. 122, December 2020.
- 13.P. Whitney Lackenbauer, Adam Lajeunesse and Ryan Dean, “Why China is Not a Peer Competitor in the Arctic”, Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs, September–October 2022.
- 14.“Chinese Scientists Carry Out Research at Arctic Ocean Expedition”, CGTN, 8 August 2023.
- 15.The XueLong 1 was initially an ice-strengthened cargo ship purchased by China from Ukraine in 1993. After undertaking several refits and modifications, China converted this into its polar research and resupply vessel.
- 16.China currently maintains four operational research stations in Antarctica. These are the Great Wall Station (1985), Zhongshan Station (1989), Kunlun Station (2009) and Taishan Station (2014).